On Tuesday, SXSW canceled a pair of gaming-related panels scheduled for the 2016 festival, citing the significant threats of violence the festival received if certain panels were to remain on the schedule.
One of those panels, “Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Games,” was a target of hostility from the moment it appeared on the radar of certain internet groups, including r/KotakuInAction, one of the digital havens for the “GamerGate” group often associated with online harassment. The other panel, “Save Point,” billed itself as a discussion of “ethics in gaming journalism” — a favorite phrase used by GamerGate, despite precious few of their targets being journalists themselves. In striking both panels, SXSW seemingly tried to diffuse the safety concern by removing both sides of one the industry’s biggest and most vitriolic culture wars.
As with almost anything related to GamerGate, following all the strings and getting the whole story is a complicated, messy process, because those under its umbrella employ deliberate obfuscation and redirection as part of their harassment strategies. In this case, however, the details don’t matter. What matters is SXSW’s response. We may have forgotten, but we’ve seen this drama play out before. If the past is any indication, SXSW might be in greater jeopardy than they even realize.
In early 2007, the Slamdance Film Festival’s Guerilla Gamemaker Competition (then a significant venue for the just-breaking indie games scene) made a stunning announcement. After their jury previously nominated “Super Columbine Massacre RPG,” a crudely-made but raw depiction of the 1999 mass shooting, the festival bowed to pressure from its sponsors and others and removed the game from its list of nominees. No one at Slamdance could have predicted the fallout from this “save-our-butts” decision would swiftly and decisively end the burgeoning event forever — but they probably should have.
Within days of the announcement, more than half of the fellow “SCMRPG” nominees withdrew their own games in protest of the decision. Slamdance co-founder Peter Baxter’s poor handling of the situation and backpedaling of his own support for the game didn’t help matters. In short order, other key sponsors (the only group Baxter seemed interested in appeasing) withdrew their support. No awards were given out in 2007. The Guerilla Gamemaker Competition evaporated.
As of this writing, major supporters and contributors to SXSW, including Buzzfeed and Vox Media/The Verge, have already withdrawn their participation from SXSW’s 2016 edition unless the panels are reinstated or the festival demonstrates it is taking harassment and safety seriously. The festival’s response so far has been terse and vague at best.
In its decision to cancel both “Level Up” and “Save Point,” SXSW made one of its favorite allusions to being a “big tent” full of ideas. This big welcoming tent got threats, they said, and the only response was to remove both parties and their ideas post-haste. This excerpt from the festival’s statement is perhaps most troubling:
If people can not agree, disagree and embrace new ways of thinking in a safe and secure place that is free of online and offline harassment, then this marketplace of ideas is inevitably compromised.
In their own words, SXSW’s admission that they could do nothing to make their own event safe, secure, and free of harassment short of disinviting certain polarizing ideas is troubling. Their assertion that the marketplace of ideas could be compromised by the sheer presence of certain ideas is even scarier. Forget about the sordid details for a moment. On a core level, what happened was that SXSW selected some ideas to put under its “big tent.” Certain people on the internet were afraid of those ideas and issued some threats, but it turned out the people *most* afraid of those ideas were the festival organizers themselves.
When presented with an opportunity to be brave, responsible, or as forward thinking as the festival claims to be, they did none of those things. If they reinstate the panels or actually address their apparently glaring lack of security, it only shows that the festival can only be counted on to take any kind of action if they get a sufficient quantity of mean tweets.
The content of the contested panels matters, but the biggest threat to SXSW’s “tent” as a whole has little to do with those issues. The integrity of a festival is a cornerstone of its legitimacy and the prestige that comes with being a selection. Without integrity, Slamdance’s gaming event lost all prestige and never recovered. If SXSW can be so easily manipulated and compromised, is there any value to bringing our ideas there?
Jesse Vigil is a writer, game designer, and co-founder of Los Angeles creative collective Psychic Bunny. He teaches game design at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, and has shown work or spoken at a variety of festivals, including SXSW.
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